JRF publishes report ‘Experiences of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry’

The study, published May 2012, is part of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s forced labour programme, and aims to highlight the issue with new robust evidence on the extent of forced labour in the UK and interventions that might contribute to its eradication. 

The study focused on the question- What are migrant workers’ experiences of forced labour and exploitation in the UK food industry? Research into experiences of forced labour/exploitation was conducted with migrant workers in the food industry across England and Scotland. A deeper understanding of the circumstances under which forced labour/exploitation occur and how it is organised is now available.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with 62 migrant workers (mainly Polish, Chinese, Latvian and Lithuanian) across five locations (London, Liverpool, South-West England, Lincolnshire and East – Central Scotland), the study:

  • Sets out how and why forced labour/exploitation occurs.
  • Uncovers forced labour/exploitation practices in the food industry.
  • Explains the impact on migrant workers.
  • Includes policy recommendations to improve regulation and aid migrant workers who experience forced labour/exploitation.

Here are key points of the study’s findings:

  • The most notable and unexpected forced labour practice was the ‘underwork scam’ – recruiting too many workers and then giving them just enough employment to meet their debt to the gangmaster.
  • A significant proportion of interviewees paid fees to come to the UK and secure work, creating indebtedness and dependence.
  • Workers were threatened and bullied. Racist or sexist language was sometimes used in the workplace, underpinning a climate of fear. Some employers used fear of dismissal to ensure that workers remained compliant and deferential.
  • Productivity targets and workplace surveillance were excessive; workers felt they were treated like machines rather than people and given targets that were often impossible to meet. Informal employment brokers frequently provided workers with tied accommodation, which was often sub-standard; workers thus experienced exploitation at home as well as in the workplace. Losing their job might also mean losing their home.
  • It is difficult to say whether the exploitation reported was severe enough to constitute forced labour, but the evidence indicated that employers were infringing many rights.
  • Low-wage migrant workers appear especially vulnerable to forced labour, despite most of those interviewed having the right to live and work in the UK. The intensity of work in the food industry, driven by economic pressures throughout the supply chain, contributes to such exploitation.

The full report can be found here.